Options narrowing for Varadkar if he and Martin do not reach agreement
Smaller factions likely to compete to claim credit for bringing government to an end
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during a press conference following a government cabinet meeting on disability at the Marino Institute of Education in Dublin. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
It no longer matters if the general election is called next week, the week after, or in April or May: campaign 2020 is already under way.
TDs and candidates have upped their canvass schedules to an election pace of three or more doorknocking sessions a day; last-minute tweaks and alterations are being made to tickets and even the stationary store in Leinster House was emptied earlier this week by TDs and party workers.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin meet on Thursday night to discuss the election date and the conclusion of the confidence-and-supply deal, which has seen Fianna Fáil underpin the Fine Gael-led minority government for almost four years.
Martin has suggested the pair agree an election date of April or May, and Varadkar has countered that he is willing to do so if the Fianna Fáil leader agrees to a list of requests he likely knows are politically impossible to agree.
The Government is no longer able to command a majority in the Dáil even with Fianna Fáil’s abstention on confidence votes and Varadkar has asked that Martin’s party actually supports the Government in such votes instead of sitting on their hands – a demand Martin has already said he will not grant.
On Thursday afternoon, speaking after a Cabinet meeting in Marino, Dublin, the Taoiseach somewhat eased the pressure on Martin, saying he believes the Government can continue even if Fianna Fáil continues to abstain.
Yet, on three occasions he was also asked to say if the Dáil will reconvene next week after the Christmas recess, but could not say if it would. The only thing stopping the Dáil from returning next week is the Taoiseach securing a dissolution from President Michael D Higgins, but Varadkar could not confirm if TDs would in fact return to Leinster House.
In the absence of any deal between the leaders of the two main parties, about to go toe-to-toe in a contest to be Taoiseach, the 32nd Dáil is breathing its last.
The final round of jousting between the two partners to confidence and supply, if it fails to come to an agreed date, may turn out to be merely a mechanism for Varadkar and Martin to tell voters during the campaign they made serious effort to keep the Dáil alive.
At his post-Cabinet press conference, Varadkar also raised the prospect of contacting smaller parties to see if they will prolong the life of his Government but Labour leader Brendan Howlin, within an hour, called for an immediate general election.
Others are likely to follow Howlin’s lead, if not that set earlier on Thursday by the group of rural Independent TDs. Three members of the group – Mattie McGrath, Michael Collins and Michael Healy-Rae – intend to table a motion of no confidence in Minister for Health Simon Harris in early February.
Rather than helping to shore up Varadkar’s position, the no-confidence motion in Harris shows the smaller factions are more likely to compete to claim credit for bringing his government to an end.
The options are narrowing for the Taoiseach, if he and Martin do not reach an agreement. He can call on election on his own terms in the days ahead, potentially as soon as next week, or he can stagger on and be at the mercy of a Dáil that has slipped out of his control.
If he does not lose a confidence vote, he may even find himself in the politically ignominious position of relying on the casting vote of the Ceann Comhairle to survive.
On numerous occasions since he assumed the Fine Gael leadership in 2017, Varadkar has refrained from calling an election. The most recent occasion was last November, after the revised Brexit deal was struck with Boris Johnson but before Johnson’s comprehensive victory in the UK general election.
At the time, Varadkar said three-quarters of his parliamentary party wanted him to call an election but he held back. As with all other occasions he resisted such pressure Varadkar then had the power to both call an election and to hold on in Government Buildings, thanks to the confidence-and-supply deal.
Now, if there is no agreement with Martin, he only has the power to call an election.
He would be powerless to stop a Dáil which will be convulsed in electioneering from collapsing his administration.